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Steve Martin portrays Navin Johnson, adopted son of a poor black sharecropper family, whose crazy inventions lead him from rags to riches and right back to rags. Along the way, he's smitten with a lady motorcycle racer, survives a series of screwball attacks by a deranged killer, becomes a millionaire by inventing the "Opti-grab" handle for eyeglasses - and shows why he's one of the hottest comic performers in the world.
For more about The Jerk and the The Jerk Blu-ray release, see the The Jerk Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on July 20, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, M. Emmet Walsh, Mabel King, Richard Ward, Dick Anthony Williams
Director: Carl Reiner
» See full cast & crew
The Jerk Blu-ray Review
The new Blu-ray's here! The new Blu-ray's here!
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, July 20, 2013
Are you old enough to remember one of the relics of antiquity, namely the phone book? These vestiges of a bygone era were soft cover compendia of names, addresses, and, yes, phone numbers of any given community and those of us who grew up before the advent of cell phones, Google and the internet used to refer to them regularly to divine important information. Will younger audiences still erupt into uproarious laughter when Steve Martin's simpleton character Navin R. Johnson gets a bit hysterical during The Jerk, jumping with joy over the arrival of the new phone book, one that has his name listed in it, therefore giving him (in his own mind at least) a certain level of respectability and renown? (Years ago, in a previous life, when an office I managed got its yearly delivery of new phone books, I burst out into a raucous "The new phone books are here! The new phone books are here!" I was met with withering stares of befuddlement by my employees.) The Jerk was Steve Martin's first big screen entry. Some Martin fans love the film inordinately, claiming it's one of the actor's best. Other fans deride it as just plain silly, not worthy of Martin's often hilarious combination of lowbrow humor with overweening intellectualism. The truth is probably somewhere in between. The Jerk is an unapologetically silly (and often scabrous and politically incorrect) homage to the brainless amongst us, as personified by the dunderheaded Navin, a character who drifts through life like a Tarot deck Fool, wandering from adventure to adventure without ever really grasping what's going on. One might compare Navin's trek to an idiot's version of The Rake's Progress, although in this case, Navin would most likely be stepping on the rake and bashing himself in the head, a la that running gag with Sideshow Bob on old episodes of The Simpsons. The Jerk is relentless in its self-proclaimed stupidity, and that may make it a bit of a haul for some viewers who are less inclined to go along with the film's basic premise, but for those who delight in childish crudity and just downright idiocy, The Jerk can be hysterically funny (if also hit and miss), at least if one sets aside any proclivities to be offended by off-putting behavior.
We first meet Navin R. Johnson as a despondent homeless guy holed up next to a glittering Hollywood premiere, where he addresses the camera (and an unseen and unheard questioner), finally relenting to detail his life story. Most of the rest of the film then is an extended flashback of sorts, showing Navin's rather unlikely journey as "the child of black sharecroppers" to worldwide fame and fortune to losing it all and then finally a stab at happily ever after. The film's screenplay, by Martin, Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, manically lurches from improbable anecdote to improbable anecdote, with a resultant unevenness of tone and, frankly, comedic effect. Some of the bits are indeed outlandishly funny, while others just kind of sit there, begging the audience to laugh (and unfortunately failing).
Like any iconic fool, Navin depends (rather like Blanche DuBois) on the kindness of strangers, and The Jerk details several kindly Samaritans who drift into Navin's life and help him make his way. When he's finally told by his African American "mother" that he is in fact not her natural born child (surprise!), Navin, after hearing some easy listening Muzak and discovering his genetic white person's ability to sense rhythm (after being completely inept when his supposed relatives play the blues on their porch), decides to head off to St. Louis, the town from which the radio broadcast originated. Once there, he's almost immediately taken under the wing of Mr. Hartounian (a surprisingly low key Jackie Mason), owner of a gas station who offers Navin a job as his assistant.
The aforementioned phone book episode occurs during this sequence, but it causes unforeseen repercussions in what some more squeamish people may find at least slightly objectionable, especially considering our post-1979 history with snipers and mass shooters. M. Emmett Walsh plays a lunatic who randomly singles out Navin's name in the phone book and then embarks on a shooting spree, attempting to kill the poor guy as a representative of all that Walsh's character feels is wrong with society. It's a frankly troubling segment for those who wonder about random acts of violence in modern day society, but it must also be admitted that it's undeniably funny at the same time.
Navin's attempt to escape the sniper bring him to his next adventure, at a traveling carnival. He loses his virginity to a kind of butch female biker (Catlin Adams), but soon meets a more demure woman, Marie (Bernadette Peters), with whom he falls in love. Marie isn't quite sure about Navin's ability to provide for her, though, and the relationship is halted in its burgeoning stages. Meanwhile, Navin gets some unexpected good news from a man he had been helping at the gas station when the sniper attack hit. Stan (Bill Macy) has developed and marketed a quick fix Navin constructed for Stan's glasses (which kept slipping off of his nose), and Navin is now a millionaire. Marie is suddenly back in the picture, and all seems rosy and set for that vaunted happily ever after, but fate intervenes again when it turns out Navin's invention has some unexpected side effects.
The Jerk is structurally anecdotal, moving from sequence to sequence with only the barest thread of a plot weaving together its elements. This is a film mostly about Martin's lunatic characterization, and as such it's fittingly successful. But Martin hedges his bets at times, to deleterious effect. Martin is simply too intelligent to keep up the ruse of an idiot savant (minus the savant part) for too long. Witness the early sequence where Navin mistakes Mr. Hartounian's offer of living quarters to be about the gas station's men's restroom. Navin goes on a long rant about remodeling and interior decorating that is distinctly at odds with the character's "know nothing" approach. In and of itself, the sequence is at least passably amusing if not laugh out loud funny, but when put in the context of The Jerk's overall premise, it just falls flat.
There are enough nuggets of hilarity sprinkled throughout The Jerk to keep most undemanding audience members laughing regularly, however. The film also has an undeniably sweet aspect as evidenced by the charming scene with Martin on ukulele and Peters on cornet performing "Tonight You Belong to Me". Martin's native intelligence may put the lie to Navin's supposed idiocy, but The Jerk manages the rare feat of being both unexpectedly smart and incredibly stupid at the same time.
The Jerk Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Jerk is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal Studios with a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer in 1.85:1. My hunch is this is a pretty old master, as it is often times pretty fuzzy and ill defined. It's not quite as bad as an upscale, but it rarely rises to anything approaching high definition splendor. Part of this is no doubt due to the source elements, for The Jerk was never an overly "pretty" film to begin with. But some of the midrange shots here are surprisingly soft looking and even some close-ups lack appreciable fine detail. Colors are decent, if a bit pallid at times. Contrast is actually fairly good and consistent throughout the film. The good news, at least for Universal catalog release watchers, is there's more than abundant grain in evidence—Universal either didn't care or want to spend the money on "improving" this outing by digitally scrubbing it.
The Jerk Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Jerk features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix which wisely doesn't try to reinvent the wheel in terms of the film's original mono sound mix. While that means there isn't a whale of a lot of immersion here, it also means the original sound design doesn't sound overly artificial in this repurposed track. Dialogue is resolutely front and center and discrete channelization is limited mostly to the music as well as some of the foley effects (notably in the sniper sequence as well as some of the carnival segments). Fidelity is very good and dynamic range is fairly wide for a comedy. It does seem a little odd that Universal would want to offer a surround mix on this small scale film, and some might have wished the original mono track had been included as an option.
The Jerk Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Jerk Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I frankly remembered The Jerk to be a lot funnier than I found it this time in revisiting it after many years in preparation for this review. There's no doubt about it—the film has quite a few great bits, but I just wasn't laughing consistently the way I remember having done decades ago when I first saw the film (I think probably on VHS, as I don't recall having seen this theatrically). Martin fans will no doubt get a kick out of this, even with the lame bits, but others may find this less consistently entertaining than some of Martin's later pieces. This Blu-ray has fairly spotty video quality, but the repurposed audio is actually pretty good.
The Jerk Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Jerk Blu-ray - May 8, 2013
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has announced the Blu-ray release of The Jerk, the classic 1979 Carl Reiner-directed comedy starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, M. Emmet Walsh, Bill Macy and Catlin Adams. The Jerk streets on July 9th.
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